At the point where Lisbon’s outlying suburbs and satellite towns have finally exhausted their capacity for careworn mediocrity, where the forest rears up and starts its long tumble down to the Atlantic, you find the town of Sintra. Though long a royal seat, it was only in the 19th century that Portugal’s party plutocrats started shaking up this hillside retreat. This meeting of worlds is most apparent in the stern, whitewashed facade of the venerable old Sintra Palace peering disapprovingly at a Portmeirion-style jumble of candy-hued villas set amid lush wooded slopes. Austerity and frivolity are further echoed in the twin peaks soaring above the town, one dominated by the solemn ruins of a Moorish fortress, the other by Pena Palace, a carnivalesque pastiche which revisits the styles, if not the glory, of Portugal’s seafaring, empire-building apogee.
Though no less a pastiche than Pena Palace, exhibiting a video game designer’s sense of historic authenticity, the Quinta da Regaleira does at least form a cohesive whole by concentrating on a Neo-Manueline style. But as impressive as the house is, it is the hill-hugging grounds which make this place so special. Stepping through the ornate portal, visitors find themselves in a miraculous micronation of evocative follies, a garden refuge out of the dream of a precocious child.
Unlike most of the other places we’ve visited, here it is the location which reflects glory on the occupant rather than the other way round. Certainly it is unlikely that we would be discussing António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro in 2012 were it not for his extraordinary estate. Born in Brazil to a wealthy Portuguese family on this day in 1848 (or 1850, according to some sources), and greatly augmenting his inherited fortune through trade, Monteiro had near-limitless means to indulge not only his elevated tastes but also his esoteric tendencies. The estate, which he acquired in 1893, was laid out by a La Scala set designer by the name of Luigi Manini, and is teeming with signs, sigils and symbols. In this programmatic landscape, follies are never mere follies but sibylline messages in stone representing Monteiro’s interest in alchemy, mythology and Freemasonry, with names like “Fountain of Abundance”, “Chimera’s Court” and “Celestial Terrace”.
On the damp November day of my visit the ocean glowered gun-metal in the distance and the moss-covered stonework dripped with the tears of imagined tragic heroines. There are engrossing tableaux at every turn, but the garden’s most effective coup de théâtre begins in a grotto veiled by a cascade. Turning a corner you find yourself in total darkness. Luckily as I made my way along the tunnel leading deep into the hillside I was within earshot of a pair of chatty Lusophones; following the sound, groping along the stone walls, I became aware of a faint glimmer in the distance. Striding gratefully toward it, I finally stepped into a disc of light and looked up to see this:
This is the “Initiatic Well”, a tower sunk into the ground and ringed by a staircase. Climbing up towards the light feels like a kind of rebirth, a route which provides an experience far greater than the sum of impressions gained along the way.
Evidently hedging his metaphysical bets, Monteiro complemented his unorthodox structures with a sublime chapel. It stands close to the main house (but not so close that it couldn’t be connected via another tunnel). The house itself is large enough but not disproportionate, giddy with turrets and spires. Inside is the library which fed Monteiro’s imagination and a laboratory for his alchemical experiments.
Through an expansive vision and single-minded determination, Monteiro exteriorised his obsessions to thrilling effect, joining Edward James, Ganna Walska, Gabriele d’Annunzio and Hermann von Pückler-Muskau in the ranks of the great eccentric gardeners.